Mountain biking is one of the fastest growing sporting activities in Australia, if not the World, so why does it seem like such a male dominated affair…or is it?
We wanted to find out about the numbers of women in the scene. Is it growing? Is it stagnating? What are the pain points that discourage women from joining in the sport at a social or racing level?
Does the MTB industry need to re-evaluate how it markets to women? Remember the unfortunate and unimaginative SixSixOne ad? Or is it the way racing seems to be focused on men, such as the lower prize money for women? Or is it perhaps the way some men inadvertently, or purposely speak negatively about women and mountain biking? We even see this at a world level with the recent comment from Claudio Caluori’s regarding Rachel Atherton’s success to date.
These are important questions that need answers if the MTB industry is to continue to move forward and evolve into a broader, and in our opinion, much more interesting one.
So when we hear about people who are proactively attracting more women into the MTB scene, it’s very encouraging. One such person is Fiona Dick, who we had the opportunity to catch up with recently.
We spoke with Fiona to talk about the lack of women in the mountain biking scene and about the women’s mountain bike programs she offers through Chocolate Foot, that’s helping to change this.
T&S: Thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to meet with us today. The weather is near perfect for riding these days, are you getting out on the bike much?
Fiona: You’re welcome! Congrats on the site, it looks great. I’m stoked to be on the bike most days of the week, between commuting and social rides and indoor WattBike classes!
T&S: Thank you for the kind words 🙂 We’re really happy how it’s been accepted in the biking and hiking community.
On the bike most days aaah…we’re more than slightly envious. We get out on the weekends but there’s five days of the week where we’re not riding. Time on the bike is what it’s all about. When did the MTB adventure start for you and what/who got you into it in the first place?
Fiona: It seems like forever as I started MTB in 1996 and ironically, given your comment above, it was a female friend who got me into it, back in the UK. It didn’t stick for her but I never looked back.
I migrated to Oz in late 1996 with my Muddy Fox fully rigid MTB, signed up for a MTB tour, befriended the operator and built up a great crew of riding mates. And then did my best to convert other friends to MTB along the way.
“Expect to forgo your shredding fixes for cruisy short rides on dirt roads and easy singletrack. Expose her to the side of mountain biking that isn’t adrenalin-fuelled so she can decide whether or not she likes it without having fear decide that for her.” Fiona Dick
T&S: A couple of years ago I got my wife into mountain biking and now she is completely hooked. Seeing her skills transform over this period has been incredibly rewarding. We used a mix of my knowledge and professional skills clinics.
What would be your big tips for people out there trying to get their partners into mountain biking? You know, avoiding the classic pitfalls such as relationship breakups…divorce etc.
Fiona: First and foremost, it has to be on their terms – they need to see something about the activity that appeals to them. I’m sure that my tips are pretty obvious ones, but if something I say makes a difference then that’s ace!
- Get your partner on a bike that fits, is set up for them, and isn’t your old shitty hand-me-down that’s no longer fun for you to ride – why would she enjoy that?
- Make sure she has a suitable saddle and knicks. Saddle sores are a complete deal breaker. Get her some protective gear such as elbow & knee/shin guards because the fear of falling can be massive for a novice rider, plus she probably thinks that grazes and bruises are not “badges of honour” (she will get over this … we all do).
- Sneakers and plastic pedals are not a good combo! See (2).
- You will need to have more patience than you ever believed possible. Expect to forgo your shredding fixes for cruisy short rides on dirt roads and easy singletrack. Expose her to the side of mountain biking that isn’t adrenalin-fuelled so she can decide whether or not she likes it without having fear decide that for her.
- Consider outsourcing the initial teaching part to somebody who she will listen to. An experienced friend that she would feel uncomfortable yelling at is a good option.
- After a few introductory rides with yourself or said friend, book her into a beginner skills clinic, a women-only session with a female instructor is recommended because these environments are super supportive, and tend to encourage them to be less inhibited, plus it’s great to have other women as a benchmark to see what is possible rather than just believing “Surely that’s only possible because he’s a guy?”
- Try and find her a crew of riding mates who are at the same level, supportive, and have similar aims of what they want to achieve when they head out riding, whether that be chatting, sessioning obstacles, fitness rides.
- If her fitness isn’t great, suggest doing some indoor training or road kilometres to get her bike fit. She will enjoy her MTB experience far better if she’s not struggling to push the pedals around. Strength training in the gym is also awesome!
T&S: OK, so here comes the big question. Why do you think there is a lack of female riders in the mountain bike scene and what should we all be doing to increase those numbers?
Fiona: I actually think there are a healthy number of women in the mountain bike scene and it’s exciting to read reports that it’s one of the fastest-growing groups in the sport.
A perceived lack of female riders might be that women choose to stay out of the race environment where the male/female split is glaringly obvious.
“What I’m seeing from within my own networks and out on the trails encourages me to believe that women’s mountain biking is healthier than ever!” Fiona Dick
Here is my wish list for getting more women into the sport!
- We need more trails and obstacles that enable progression. Generally speaking, women are more risk averse than men. We think about potential consequences more and that means we can take a bit longer to commit to the challenging lines. Having the conviction that you will successfully make that gap jump because you’ve previously (and consistently) nailed a similar length tabletop helps … a lot!
- The bike industry should employ more women and use more women in their marketing – but not just for the marketing of ‘recreational’ cycling.
- People should think before speaking negatively about women on forums etc. It might not be intentional, but just pause and consider if it could be construed as being sexist or derogatory towards women, as this won’t help encourage more women into a male-dominated sport. Also, if someone objects, don’t try to bully them into believing they are being over-sensitive or a raging feminist. This seems to be a common response when someone is called out on derogatory behaviour.
- Women need others to ride with. As mentioned above, women may not be inclined to seek adventure and risk, particularly on their own. They want to be shown where to ride, they enjoy having company while they do it, and they often tend to not be very interested in fixing their own mechanicals. For any women bristling with indignance right now, note that this is a massive generalisation based on my experience with novice female mountain bikers, and I constantly stress the importance of self-sufficiency and … well, knowing how to change a freakin’ inner tube!
- In the racing world, give women equal prize money to the men’s field, and don’t write press releases as if the women’s field is an afterthought.
T&S: Some very interesting and valid points made there Fiona and very promising to hear that the numbers are in fact, increasing. It’s interesting to think about the whole “perceived” versus actual numbers.
If groups like yours are seeing it first hand then that’s proof enough and we hope this is being experienced across the country. If so, then we are heading in the right direction.
T&S: Racing is not for everyone but one thing I do know is that it has added some variety and goals to my riding. It’s kept my skills sharp and has been a reason to keep improving. That said, I think the majority of us (myself included) who enter races, do it for fun and the social aspect. Some races are more akin to a festival, and what more could you want than bikes, trails, food, beer, sunshine, music and friends?
Do you think if race formats were a little more like this, then it could act as a great platform to attract more women into the sport, rather than these male dominated lycra clad affairs, we often see?
Fiona: It’s been a while since I raced regularly or wore lycra on the outside whilst riding a mountain bike, but every time I go to a race it’s a blast – hard to beat the combo of a road trip, a great ride, catching up with good people, and the satisfaction that comes from actually trying to ride fast instead of my normal trail chatathons.
Having taken our women’s development team to their first ever races, I’ve seen them experience the above and become immediately hooked. And many of these events are lycra-clad affairs such as our Singletrack Mind Series and Western Sydney XC races, for example.
“I think the key to getting women to race is not necessarily the race format, but encouragement by their peers and knowing that they’ll be amongst friends who support them.” Fiona Dick
They worry about not being good enough, about holding up others on the track, about letting down their team mates – so going along with other experienced riders who are there to support you and have a laugh with between laps is a great way to sample your first race.
I think the race scene in general is suffering, at least in NSW, which might be due to over-saturation or simply boredom of the same old formats. Mountain biking can be expensive to get into, but after that it’s pretty much free to ride whenever and wherever you want with your mates. For many, paying an entry fee to find out just how much slower you are than other people simply doesn’t make sense 😉
I agree that festival style events with lots of different race formats and social activities are definitely a good thing but, in Australia, it’s still a challenge to get the numbers to justify the work and costs behind such a thing.
On a small scale, there are plenty of events being run by clubs which focus on the social aspect as much as the competition, and these events do seem to be thriving.
T&S: The Singletrack Mind Series events you run sound like a great format, (love the name by the way) how is this going for you and have you seen the numbers in women riders increase over the years?
Fiona: We ran the Singletrack Mind Series for six years, during which we ran races at the best singletrack locations around NSW and ACT, worked with some great clubs, had the best sponsors and prizes, and met a heap of really awesome people who helped make the vibe at our events one of the best around.
After six years, we felt it was time to put it on hiatus due to the general decline in MTB race participant numbers across all events in NSW/ACT – we felt it was time we focused our energies elsewhere. Currently that focus is on our own riding, skills clinics, and our women’s team, and it’s been a great year!
“We definitely saw an increase in women riders over the years at our events. In the beginning we were attracting around 15-17% female fields, which was the norm amongst other similar events, and 19-22% became pretty standard towards the latter events of the Series. In 2015 we recorded our biggest ever of 26% female participation! Stoked!” Fiona Dick
T&S: You have an all-women’s MTB team, can you tell us how this came about and the reasons behind it?
Fiona: Over the years of attending races and running them ourselves, we found it disheartening to often see thinly-subscribed female categories at many events, including our own.
“Women want to race just as meaningfully as men do, but it’s not terribly satisfying if you only have a handful of people to compete against and I suspect this is why some women stop racing.” Fiona Dick
It can also mean that the achievements of female riders are overlooked – however, in most cases these women will have still raced their hardest for the duration of the event.
We wanted to do something to help change this. Female participation at our events was already increasing so we thought if we put together a team of riders who would race at all of our events, plus a bunch of others around NSW as they saw fit, it could encourage consistent competition in the female fields.
We had relationships with some great businesses who were keen to come on board as sponsors – Manly Cycles, Cycle Studio, Bioathletic, Finish Line, Aussie Butt Cream, Ventou, Hammer Nutrition, Rockpool Graphics, Coach Chops, Today’s Plan – all offering either product or services to help these riders develop their fitness and strength. Chocolate Foot managed the team and provided races and skills training.
We’ve just completed a year with the second intake of the team and team members are all wildly different in terms of riding goals, age, career, etc. but what we love seeing the most is the increase in confidence and skill, and them utilising the existing women’s networks and creating their own.
Many riders come to the team knowing barely anyone else to ride with and after a few weeks or months have developed a great crew of riding friends. I really do believe this is making a difference in helping more women into the sport. I hope it is!
T&S: It sounds like you’ve built a solid model to encourage new talent into the sport and grow the MTB community in the process. It also sounds like the riders are really supported and valued and not simply a sponsored clothes horse. Making the riders feel part of a well-supported team is crucial I believe. So what are the requirements for riders wanting to join the team?
Fiona: We put out a call for expressions of interest and people are asked to respond via a written application. We’re looking for people who want to improve their riding and challenge themselves, and commit to a program of training and racing to do so.
We’re seeking women who will be great ambassadors for the sport and the team sponsors, and openly encourage other riders (not only women) into the sport.
“We encourage applications from women of all ages and walks of life, as seeing a 40+ women discover the joy of mountain biking is as rewarding as seeing a 18 yo realise their potential.” Fiona Dick
We’d definitely like for more girls of 18-25 to apply as we hope that by promoting them as role models would help encourage more young girls into mountain biking.
T&S: These days I ride with women, at least 50% of the time. I like the different perspective that women bring to a ride. These days I’m a much more calculated rider. You have to be once you get over 40 (recovery takes a lot longer). I evaluate obstacles much more these days before hitting them. I see this type of approach in female riders, which I respect.
In your experience, have you seen differences in the way men and women learn and progress and what are those differences?
Fiona: I agree that, generally speaking, female riders are more conservative and think about consequences more. Speaking from my own experience, I’ll only hit an obstacle if I am 100% sure I have the skill and have worked up to it by progressing on smaller obstacles or similar situations. That tends to mean it takes me a long time to hit up anything that really scares me, but I’m OK with that. This could also be age-related as I’m also over 40.
What I’ve witnessed in skills clinics is that women listen to instruction far better than men, haha! Guys will often listen to part of what you’re saying, and then ignore the rest because they want to just get on with it.
T&S: Women specific bikes? Yay or nay?
Fiona: Nay. Well, for mountain bikes, at least. I think that manufacturers offering the same frames but with different components (saddle, bars, grips, etc.) and suspension tuning for women have got it pretty right. That way we get the option of any bike and spec.
Colour choice is not a significant motivator for me in a bike purchase, but for those that it is I also think the graphics and colours now available are far less gender specific, which also means you can buy a unisex bike in pink. Winning! (if you like pink).
T&S: You live over on Sydney’s North shore where (in my opinion) you have some of the best, technical trails around Sydney. Do you think having those kind of trails on your doorstep has had an impact on your personal development?
Fiona: It has, to a degree. I guess you need to learn to ride what you’ve got. In Sydney’s northern beaches, we have sandstone. When I lived in Perth, I had to get to grips with pea gravel. And in the Southern Highlands and Nowra, where the trails are smooth and flowy, I tried to become smooth and fast.
I personally believe that everyone should start off riding XC, and learn to climb, ride obstacles, and corner well, as well as descend. Get these kind of skills and you can ride anything well. Put a DH bike in the hands of a skilled XC rider and they could easily be competitive in DH or on most technical trails. This doesn’t necessarily translate in the opposite direction.
It’s no secret that the biggest adrenalin buzzes are got from situations that involve speed or air beneath your tyres, and I know everyone has their own objectives but personally I get huge stoke from not getting off and walking when the going gets tricky – up and down hill.
T&S: What did you think about Claudio’s comments about Rachel Atherton being as good as she is due to her brothers?
Fiona: I reckon any commentary from Claudio should cease at the end of his course preview run! There’s no question that comment was insulting to Rachel. She works damn hard and has achieved something that no other athlete has before in downhill MTB racing.
Whether we are looking at a ‘once in a generation’ athlete or somebody else will come along next season to challenge her supremacy, who knows? But her success should be attributed to her own talent and hard work; nothing else.
Likewise, at the World Champs, we heard “You’re seeing the greatest downhill racer perhaps we’ve ever seen” – Rob Warner on Greg Minnaar’s run. Rachel’s 4 World Champs and 30 World Cup wins to Greg’s 3 World Champs and 19 World Cups would contradict that. Simply including the word “male” removes any potential offense.
“I know that these are off the cuff comments, said with no forethought and that it’s mostly due to the low number of female competitors compared to male, but it doesn’t help encourage more women into the sport if their achievements are constantly undervalued or ignored.” Fiona Dick
I recently saw a TV report from a domestic MTB event which didn’t even mention the female race, despite it being won by a current world champion.
T&S: So, congratulations by the way for becoming one of the team Specialized ambassadors. Can you tell us how that came about and what it all means to be an ambassador?
Fiona: Thanks! In late 2015 Specialized advertised for 10 female ambassadors to help support and encourage more women into the sport by way of social rides and networking. They had an overwhelming number of applications and had the unenviable task of eventually whittling it down to 12, and I was privileged to be one of these chosen few!
“I applied for the role because I’d been riding Specialized bikes for a few years and already thought them the leader in women’s specific products – so I felt that I could represent the brand with authenticity.” Fiona Dick
All the women’s ambassadors were invited to Melbourne for an Ambassador Summit at Specialized HQ in April so we could meet one another, the Specialized team, and learn more about the brand and its products.
Oh, and ride bikes, of course 😉 One of the highlights was seeing so many talented women as part of the Specialized team – which really said something to me about how the company is getting behind women in the sport.
As far as our brief goes – we are all about helping get more women on bikes. We lead regular social rides and are encouraged to be proactive in supporting women in cycling however we feel best via our own networks and experience.
That’s what I really love about being part of the team – feeling supported to do whatever I like (within reason!) if it’s to do with getting more female bums on bikes. So, feel free to make suggestions!
And – shameless plug here – on Saturday 17th of December I’m running what should be a super fun and social event to wrap up this year – a Scavenger Hunt Women’s Ride at Manly Dam. Spread the word, more info here!
This last weekend I was involved in the Specialized Destination Trail Festival where they booked out Green Valleys MTB Park and offered free shuttles, demo bikes, guided rides, food truck, coffee cart, live music, awesome trails, and beer! I ran two women’s mtb skills clinics – beginner and intermediate – and I had an absolute blast! Hopefully the participants enjoyed themselves too 😉
“But yeah, it was just really cool to be in a location with all this stuff available, and access to some superb trails which offer great opportunities for progression – probably the first park of its kind in NSW.” Fiona Dick
And on a personal note, there’s a lot of stuff I saw today that looks scary but awesomely built, so I can’t wait to return to Green Valleys for a day of shuttles and sussing out some new challenges!
T&S: Can you do us mates rates on that new Specialized Enduro beast? Ha ha only kidding. Or are we? It’s OK, you don’t have to answer that.
Fiona: Ha! No, but you’re welcome to drool over mine when it arrives! I seriously cannot wait – friends who have already got theirs have been completely blown away by this bike!
Actually, I saw you at Green Valleys on the weekend – let’s hear your thoughts on the bikes you tested!
T&S: Oh yes, we’ll be putting up a short post on that this week. Let’s just say I was suitably impressed.
T&S: What does the future hold for Chocolate Foot and the Women’s Development team? What are the main goals for the next year and further afield?
Fiona: We’re not sure what the future holds for Chocolate Foot race events, but we’ll definitely continue to offer MTB skills training and will be calling for a new intake for the Women’s Development team in 2017.
We see Chocolate Foot as something that enables us to do what we love – so it’ll evolve as we dream up new and exciting things to offer!
T&S: Well, thank you so much for your time today Fiona. We really appreciate you taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us on this important topic. It’s been very interesting to hear your insights into how the women’s riding scene is developing and we have to say, it sounds very promising.
We wish you, your family and Chocolate Foot all the best for 2017. We’ll be eagerly watching how the Women’s Development team perform next year and hopefully see you on one of your social rides.
The women’s MTB scene. OK, so maybe it’s not as bad as we first thought and perhaps a lot of it comes down to people’s perceptions. We agree there is a hell of a lot of work still to do to bring certain standards, values and expectations up to that of the male demographic, but overall, it’s heading in the right direction and that’s very good news.
With people like Fiona in the MTB community it can only get better and we hope that this post has inspired some women out there to get into it. On the same hand we also hope that some of the more blunt instruments out there who may not of given this topic much thought before, will hopefully think before opening their cakehole.
Author: Jason Lorch
Born and grew up in Wales but now a fully fledged Aussie. A passionate mountain biker, hiker and general nature addict. I’m also a bit of a muso and enjoy a good craft beer every now and again (probably too often).
I hope what we do here at Tyres and Soles will inspire people to get out there and experience first hand, the natural wonders that surround them.
So, pump up those tyres, don your favourite boots. Grab a mate, a partner, a pet… and head out into nature. But tell us all about it when you get back.
Chief editor at Tyres and Soles.